The Philippine Congress granted President Rodrigo Duterte special powers to combat the spread of Chinese coronavirus in a bill approved Tuesday.
A last-minute amendment to the bill specifically punishes the spreading of fake news by up to two months in prison and up to 1 million Philippine pesos ($US 19,541.66) in fines. A former Philippine Supreme Court spokesperson commenting on the amendment said it would infringe on free speech.
Section 6(6) punishes “individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion.”
Acts specified under Section 6 will be penalized by “imprisonment of two (2) months or a fine of not less than Ten Thousand Pesos but not more than One Million Pesos, or both such imprisonment and fine, at the discretion of the court.” Individuals “participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar acts” also face punishment.
Former Philippine Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te questioned the subparagraph on the punishment of fake news. Speaking to Philippine news outlet Rappler on Tuesday, Te says that it “would be void,” as no Philippine law that punishes – or even defines – “fake news” exists.
Duterte has ordered the arrest of the founder of Rappler, Maria Ressa, on multiple occasions for allegedly running a media organization owned by non-Philippine citizens, a crime in the country. Ressa has denied the charges and accused Duterte of silencing dissident press.
“Since there is no law that criminalizes or defines fake news as a crime, and the special powers law does not also define what fake news is, it cannot be criminalized. That would be void,” he said.
Te added that the amendment would violate the constitutional right to free speech. “That can be questioned as being vague as well as overbroad considering that it trenches on freedom of expression and of speech.”
Acts punished under Section 6 are already punished by existing laws, he points out. “That being said, much of those enumerated in sec. 6 are already prohibited by special laws or punished as felonies.” For example, disobeying local executives can be punished under the Code of Conduct of Public Official or graft.
Duterte has long threatened to charge disobedient local officials with dereliction of duty. Last week, he promised criminal charges for mayors defying his quarantine orders as part of a total lockdown of Luzon, where Manila is located. Duterte closed off the entire island of Luzon in a bid to stem the spread of the Chinese coronavirus.
The special powers bill will be valid for three months unless extended by Congress or terminated earlier through a Presidential proclamation or a concurrent resolution.